I could see in my friend’s eyes, his posture and his breathing, just how trying life has been for his family. His son was just diagnosed with Asperger’s. The diagnosis was a bittersweet relief. They had been doing their best to hold it together day in and day out. No one prepares us for things like this. But they endured.

With a diagnosis, they were able to take some action to ease the situation. One of the most important changes they made was to acquire a dog. That dog altered their lives, mostly because it improved the son’s life. The dog gave the son something that was calming in the form of non-verbal bonding. The dog offered unconditional loyalty and support. In turn, that brought the parents some relief.

I went home from that meeting to greet my own dog, Sam. He was struggling with doggie jet lag on his fourth day in our home in a new country. I had just flown back to the Sandhills to collect him from my parents and take him to Stockholm, via Chicago. What we don’t do for our dogs — the vet, the papers, the medicine, the luggage, the USDA paperwork, the travel carrier, the canine sleeping pills. But we endured because Sam is, well, Sam.

His name hasn’t always been Sam. I don’t know what it was before. I remember the day he found us, though. I was watching the Pinehurst carriage parade with my friend Lesley. We got to talking to a woman on the corner who held a scrappy dog she was fostering. He was a rescue. I fell hard for him. She suggested I take him home overnight to meet my girls. We never looked back.

Poor Sam was in bad shape, we learned at the vet. Malnourished and neglected, his teeth were rotting through his jawbone. The vet pulled 13 teeth and wired the pieces of his jaw together. She called him Lucky. He healed and started eating again. His loyalty to us was unwavering after that — as was ours to him.

You might think Sam was the winner in this deal, but I know we were. Sam taught us things we had forgotten: How to run in the yard for no reason. How to sit for hours in the sun. How to curl up and how to stretch. How to appreciate food and company and walks, and how to explore and meet strangers. Sam reminded us to appreciate each other every time we came home. A simple wag of the tail spoke volumes.

So when we left for Sweden without Sam, there was a void. How do I know? The first day he arrived in Stockholm, my teenage girls spent more hours with their parents WILLINGLY than the entire previous week combined. What’s more, it spilled over into helping care for Sam, helping in the kitchen, and hanging out together.

I wish Sam could talk and tell us his story. There’s a whole decade we are missing. He came to us house-trained and very capable of tricks, including “high five” and “roll over.” He handled Chicago (our two-day stopover on the return) like a pro, meeting other dogs with a sophisticated mix of recognition and indifference. He knew how to walk around the sidewalk grates and wait for traffic to cross the street. Sam must have had quite a life before us.

It’s obvious why they call a dog a man’s best friend — in our case, a woman’s best friend and a kid’s best friend too. There’s something about dogs that brings out the best in humans. As my acquaintance said at lunch, it helped his son with Asperger’s acquire more empathy and social understanding.

Of course, I could see the impact of a dog on my own family as well.

Some will argue peacocks and squirrels are the best animals for helping humans feel safe and secure, but most still go for the canine companion. About 60 million homes in the USA have a dog, or almost half the homes nationwide. We should all be so lucky to be in that group of pet owners.

 

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